Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 278-279)



Q278 Mr Mitchell: We are very grateful to you for coming, Mr Somerfield. May I start with a question we have been asking everybody? What do you think is good about this Bill and what do you think is bad about this Bill. Could you give us an overview?

  Mr Somerfield: I think the good bit is that it clarifies a number of issues which some of us were not aware of beforehand, I admit, the legislation that exists already. The bad bit is the somewhat intimidatory aspect of the entry, a point made by previous witnesses. When I first read this, I wondered whether I was living in Germany in the Thirties. I thought that Adolf was not too free with his consultation papers, so perhaps I am still in a democracy after all! I realised from discussion of many people within the industry that it is perhaps not quite as bad as would appear. I understand the Bill is very much in draft form, so we can modify it. May I make some points independently? I think the Committee can be quite encouraged that there is a reduction in numbers of livestock kept, or there will be as a result of the area payments scheme, which is now being instigated. As you will be aware, in Wales most of the farms are family farms where the standard of husbandry is extremely high. I think these are the most efficient units there are. My old adversary, Sean Rickard, who advocates bigger is better and intends to make Wales into a big ranch if he can has been proven wrong in that aspect. There are increasing numbers in dairy units but hill sheep and cattle are possibly on too much of a decline now, certainly cattle numbers, to such an extent that the Countryside Council for Wales is rather bothered about not having mixed grazing on the hills. I personally have a flock of hill sheep on a very high hill at the western end of the Brecon Beacons. We have stuck to the indigenous breeds, so we do not have the welfare problems of lambing as they are outside all the time and the problems are minimal. One of the big problems is manpower. The average age for workers is 59-60 in the Welsh hills and no youngsters are following on. This is a huge problem, coupled with the fact that there we have a terrible shortage of large animal vets. People are just not going into large animal practices. There lie our inspector problems.

  Mr Mitchell: You have given us a picture of a doddering group of farmers travelling over the hills pursuing a free body of sheep.

  Q279 Mr Lepper: Thank you for that description of farming in Wales as it exists at the moment. One of the things you have mentioned in relation to your own farm is the numbers of sheep on hillsides, which is the natural place for them to be, I guess. I believe your organisation does have concerns in respect of   these definitions of abandonment and the consequences. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

  Mr Somerfield: Tim Bennett has covered one aspect of this. We are in the Brecon Beacons National Park, which is criss-crossed with footpaths. We frequently have walkers turning up with abandoned lambs that are not abandoned at all; they are sheltering under a gorse bush or somewhere in the pouring rain. We have a wonderful number of so-called experts who have watched a couple of episodes of Country File and listened to The Archers and they know more about it than we do. The other aspect we find is that there is almost, and I think this is slightly media inspired, a vindictive attitude with a self-appointed police force. Whereas in the past if I had a dead sheep—and of course the sheep will always die on the footpaths, never anywhere else, preferably by a style where several paths meet—people would come and say, "Do you know you have a dead sheep there?", now they are immediately on a mobile phone to Animal Health and they know the number. They are out in the countryside, I would not say for trouble but for points to contest. Yes, there are pressures, public pressure, people walking, people with dogs chasing around, people putting themselves at risk by walking amongst suckler cows which have young calves afoot. They gather up the dog when the cows come running and they are putting themselves in huge danger. Basically it is a lack of understanding. Country File does a certain amount of good but I feel a country code could be put out to give people more understanding of animal behaviour.

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